In my hometown of Chicago, the winter of 2019 will be remembered for its refusal to end. This, combined with a steady flow of demoralizing news reports on the impact of climate change, gave me an idea. I needed something that was within my power to bring a bit of green into my life while returning me to a sense of hope.
For this, I turned to kitchen scraps.
If that sounds like a lot to ask of a humble vegetable, get ready to feel empowered, and maybe even become a little obsessed. It turns out, the butt ends—and many other disposable parts—of vegetables we consume, and mindlessly forget, are still full of possibility. Water, sunlight and a daily dose of TLC will bestow onto your scraps one more act before retiring them to the compost bin, the final step in the cycle of life before it begins anew.
GARBAGE TO GARDEN — ROMAINE LETTUCE
It all started with a head of Romaine lettuce, a personal favorite for its crunch and a shelf life that would make the fancier, more delicate Boston lettuce green with envy if nature hadn’t already intervened.
Here’s what you do: Cut those Romaine heads, usually bagged in bunches of three, about three inches from the stem-growing tip. Find a small bowl, fill it with no more than two inches of water, and tuck your stems snugly so they don’t tip over. Place your newly replanted lettuce on the sunniest kitchen windowsill, also known as your indoor garden.
Change the water every day or two, moving them occasionally according to the cues from the sun. In as little as two or three days you’ll see signs of life, as the center of your stem tip will begin to sprout deep green leaves.
Within a few weeks, the leaves should be about four to six inches tall, enough to bring a bright, slightly peppery crunch to a few sandwiches. And by “bright” I don’t just mean color. While small in quantity, the fresh growth’s
f lavor is deeper.
Pro Tip: Keep the tops of your budding regrowths as dry as possible to avoid mold.
REPLANT AND RESUSCITATE — CELERY
I like celery, I really do. But I don’t cook with it very often. I love it for soups in the cooler months and mayo-laced salads in the summer. In my kitchen this can mean waste, which equals a fraught conscience. Sold by the pound, celery is not cheap. Enter replanting.
My growing plan for celery was essentially the same as for the Romaine, with one exception. Once the celery grew small roots, I decided to plant it in soil. It proved to be a good plan; I’m still cutting from the prodigious celery leaves that I first planted in May. The taste can best be described as is not your grocery store celery. Note: I could use the stalks if I wanted to, but the plant is so beautiful I can’t bear it.
Pro Tip: Put that plant back on the windowsill. Now. Do not attempt to give it a little extra boost of sun, even briefly. While you shouldn’t expose delicate growths of any plant too quickly, in my experience celery will wilt immediately in the full sun. Also, no overwatering, please.
A DELICATE BALANCE — HOLY BASIL
Basil is one of the most delicate herbs. You can kill it pretty quickly in too-cool weather. But with this system, you can have basil in perpetuity.
All you need to do is take a cutting from your existing plant. Pinch off at least four inches right below a leaf node, which is where the new growth originates. Make sure to remove the leaves off the cutting, leaving only about two inches of leaves at the top. Then place your cuttings in a clear glass of water and watch the roots take form. Once they are about a quarter inch long, repot your basil. Repeat.
Pro Tip: You will need a grow light in the winter months.
PLANT IT, PLATE IT — TO A POINT
Buoyed, yet seeking to improve my yield and get advice on what I did wrong when my efforts yielded nothing at all, I bought No-Waste Kitchen Gardening, by Katie Elzer-Peters, and reached out to Elzer-Peters, the author of eight books on gardening. She gave me some good news and bad news.
On the bright side, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. “It’s not you or your knowledge gap,” she assured me. “You have no idea how the plant was treated before you got it. There’s so much that has happened to that little vegetable and it can affect how the plant behaves.”
As to yield, she had this to say. “When you’re regrowing from scraps they’re never going to get the same size as your original purchase,” she went on. “These plants have been bred to produce a crop, be bought and eaten.” She added, “If you regrow from a plant, they don’t usually get super enormous but they are very tasty.”
Because of the respect they inspired in her, Elzer-Peters’ favorite plants to regrow are ginger and turmeric roots, two of the slower growers. “The first time I grew turmeric I lost patience. I finally put it outside and thought, ‘You’re on your own.’” Then, she saw a sprout. “Growing from scraps is a little bit intuitive, but you just have to experiment and be patient. If you’re not successful, try again because it can be very gratifying.”
Pro Tip: Enjoy your regrown plants while they last. Then, don’t forget to compost.